The only thing guaranteed to add some color to your dreary set review season, it’s Two Jesses’ Flavor Review of Oath of the Gatewatch.
Themes and Mechanics
Jesse K: Hoo boy, this is the big one. Colorless now has a specific mana symbol associated with it, and from this point forward lands will no longer produce 1’s and 2’s (rarely), but little diamonds instead. I think this change is fine, but it’s interesting that a change this far-reaching was slipped into this little set, rather than making its debut with BFZ. It’s also odd that “colorless” costs have been stated to be a thing related only to Kozilek’s brood of Eldrazi and now, after this set, he’s dead and the block is over. It just feels like such a low payoff for such a big change, if we’re really not going to expand upon the design space any further. It seems like Eldrazi have a bit of an identity crisis, never managing to do a coherent “thing” from set to set. Those complaints having been made, I really feel like this was the design, from a flavor perspective, that the Eldrazi were looking for all along. It’s a new “color” of mana that operates in an essentially different way, being both separate from our status quo of five colors and having a different mechanical identity than artifacts. Most importantly, it still works with a whole host of cards from throughout Magic’s history. It’s somewhat alarming that there are now 4 different ways for a card to be colorless (artifact, colorless specific, generic but not artifact, and “devoid” cards that are colorless but still cost colored mana), and that they are all represented in this block. I mostly worry about newer players who walk into this set, don’t understand a major component of it, and walk right back out.
Jesse T: Good thing they didn’t reprint Ghostfire! Colorless mana is the sixth color no one asked for. At best it’s inoffensive. At worst, it’s clunky and parasitic. The Eldrazi have turned the once-lush jungles of Zendikar into bone dust and microchips, and with them, unleashed the awesome power of various mediocre off-color effects. The bismuth landscapes and otherworldly geometries are interesting visual motifs, but the mechanics are a soupy mess of disruptive effects and creature keywords from all over the color pie. Countermagic, direct damage, exile, trample… it’s kind of like blue in Vintage. It’s worth noting that we finally see the one and only white devoid card in this set.
K: Would it be off-color (pun not intended, but recognized) to make a “conflict diamonds” joke here, about how controversial this rules decision has been? Apparently implementing it on Magic Online has completely broken a fair number of cards. Just another example of the path of destruction left in the Eldrazi’s wake.
K: The main story theme of the set seems to be the launch of a super-friends team of planeswalkers who band together to fight the Eldrazi. My favorite planeswalker is Iron Man because he has a cool robot suit and shoots missiles. Will these fantastic 4 continue to bust ghosts and fight crimes in future sets? Wizards sure seem to be betting on it. Anyway, as such, we’re seeing cards that directly call out the card type in much greater quantity than ever before. This is fine as a small sub-theme, but as someone who just doesn’t like planeswalkers that much, I find it generally uncompelling. The cards are good, solid designs, but will probably feel bad every time in limited, as they talk about a card type that you are just very unlikely to have.
T: Who you gonna call? Planeswalkers! I think Ob Nixilis kills a bunch of major characters in this set, so hopefully we’ll see a more interesting crop next time around. The cycle is frustratingly incomplete, since every color is represented except black. Why doesn’t a black planeswalker get an oath? These characters are also literally all white, unless elves count as people of color. There are plenty of black Eldrazi. Only one white one. None of those vampire allies are planeswalkers? I’m just saying. This is another example of black creatures being wrongfully characterized as villains and targeted by the police.
T: This one’s a zero on the flavor meter, so it had better be fun to play with. If it isn’t, I guess we can always line up a bunch of old couches in the game store and make our own fun.
K: Putting further emphasis on the team-up theme, surge is the rare mechanic that refers directly to the fact that you might have teammates in a game of Magic: the Gathering. Well, unless you play online that is. I guess it does its job of subtly encouraging cooperation, but in practice you’re just gonna be mostly incentivized to cast a bunch of spells in one turn. A tried and true mechanic that has never, ever gone wrong before.
T: Seriously though, who would want a soda with carbs?
K: Hey, remember how the ally mechanic in the last set was specifically designed so that ally cards would be useful and potentially playable even if you didn’t have a deck filled with allies? That was a cool design decision. Anyway, and on an unrelated note, the new ally mechanic entirely replaces rally, and requires you to have 2 allies just sitting around doing nothing in order for you to have access to a variety of effects, most of which have a long history of just being available as normal tap abilities. You start with needing one ally, now you need two… I feel like our tolerance for allies is slowly and steadily being built up. Fortunately for us, the 3rd set in BFZ Block was cancelled, so we won’t have to endure its rumored “all allies” gimmick.
T: Drana’s chain of command sounds a lot like the corporate structure of Amazon.com. Having all allies would actually be kind of nice, since there’s still no clear visual cue to distinguish them from non-allies. Null Caller, for example, is another vampire shaman who makes 2/2 zombie tokens just like Drana’s Chosen, except one is an ally and one isn’t. Null Caller even directly refers to the defense of Zendikar in its flavor text just to make things more confusing. The ally tribal theme has some great inherent flavor, and they seem to be doing their best to undermine that in any way possible.
K: Support may look like the world’s most boring version of Magic’s perennial no-ideas-left go-to of adding +1/+1 counters, but really, it’s about the message. Taken as a whole, I think what the mechanics of this set seem to be saying is that we should support each other and do our best to find common ground in these divisive times. Common ground in fighting our greatest enemy, a potential Donald Trump presidency (unambiguously the real life equivalent of the Eldrazi). And just like in Magic, our best chances seem to involve setting him on fire or trapping him in a prison of stones.
T: I guess the big Eldrazi are about the closest thing Magic has to trump cards, which makes his position on extraplanar aliens pretty hypocritical. The Joraga Nation was here way before his ancestors arrived from the Blind Eternities. I’m putting my +1/+1 counters on a candidate I can trust, like one of those nonblack planeswalkers. Chandra: Feel the burn!
The Missing Mechanics
K: Did you like Battle for Zendikar? Rally, landfall, awaken: Those were pretty cool mechanics, right? Well I hope you didn’t think so, because none of those things are in OGW, or at least they are represented only in severely diminished quantity. We’re not ingesting or processing either. I guess the Eldrazi just don’t do that anymore, in exchange for a newfound hunger for colorless mana. If you were looking forward to the second set in the block (which, I remind you, is now the only other set in the block) for the expansion of themes or evolution of mechanics, you are out of luck. And the new mechanics have barely any overlap at all with the old ones. Really makes me wonder how this limited format is going to play, since there’s virtually zero support for the previous themes. I kind of hope this is not generally how the new block structure goes.
T: These elementals are a 10.0 on the Richter scale, and a 0.0 on the Highly Official Flavor Ranking System. Elementals usually feel less like primal forces assembled by nature itself in times of need, and more like big random piles of garbage assembled by the creative team at the last minute. The embodiment of insight is green, and gives my creatures vigilance? Isn’t insight more of a blue thing? They should have just called these Embodiment of Vigilance and Embodiment of Trample and saved the names for a better cycle of cards. If there’s a reason these aren’t templated as “Landfall — Awaken 3″, I can’t figure it out. Why drop one keyword and not the other? Gotta free up creative space for that “planeswalkers matter” theme, I guess. Speaking of which…
Legends and Planeswalkers
K: To me this card is the most unambiguous success of the whole set. I love it, and it surpasses the original for me in all components (except, possibly, for the art). The old Eldrazi did a good job of communicating terror, but had real gameplay problems. The new Kozilek manages to communicate mental distortion so much better than the original, and is just as daunting to face down. Instead of being mostly a big dumb dude that makes you lose all your stuff (you know, like all the Eldrazi), The Great Distortion is going to feel more like playing a mind game and losing. He’s replacing the original as my colorless commander of choice as soon as I get my hands on one.
T: Kozilek, the Great Distortion returns, along with Emrakul, the Amazing Tone, and Ulamog, the Infinite Reverb. Together they will make your guitar sound so brutal it will shred reality itself. Kozilek is the titan of insanity and confusion. You can tell he’s a menace because it says so right on the card. If you’re wondering why he only wears his crown of obsidian blades for certain photos and not others, it’s because nothing is real and you’re actually having a nightmare right now. Wake up! You’re going to have a panic attack! Just kidding, panic attacks don’t happen. I agree that Kozilek’s design really comes through on the concept of mental distortion, especially for something with no discernible head or brain.
K: Did you people really want an ally general for your commander decks? I’ve heard it a bunch of times, so it must be true for someone. At least they gave it the most universally beloved commander mechanics: tutoring! Look, if this is your thing, that’s fine. The card seems very well designed for what it is, and I really appreciate the way they snuck the 5-color identity onto the card in a way that both makes sense and feels worth the cost. Next on the WotC wish fulfillment list: A 5-color legend that is both an ally and a sliver.
T: Today we shall taste the rainbow! Tazri appears to be giving an inspiring speech in a colosseum made entirely out of fruitcake. Or is that what the Wastes are made out of? Whatever it is, the Eldrazi sure won’t eat it. Supposedly Tazri wears an angel’s halo around her neck as a memento, but I suspect that it actually keeps her head from falling off of its robot chassis. Tazri seems like a pretty decent general, and she doesn’t like Gideon, so she’s fine by me.
K: Linvala somehow managed to get even less classy since the last time we saw her, despite maintaining her preference for dressing only in bedsheets. This is a mythic legendary character from the old set that doesn’t feel mythic, legendary, or have anything to do with her previous incarnation. The set of abilities she sports are painfully generic, especially when compared to the weirdly specific hosing her predecessor brought to the table. Although this type of ability last appeared on an uncommon, I guess she qualifies as mythic because she’s good? And since when are Angel tokens 3/3? This card does everything wrong.
T: I’m not gonna judge. If I could leave the house in my blanket and still be taken seriously, I think I’d do it. I could buy that Linvala provided Timely Reinforcements at Sea Gate or something, even if it has nothing to do with her previously established backstory. Zendikari angels normally blind themselves with halos over their eyes, so it already made no sense that Linvala was a sighted angel, but she fought using silence. I don’t think the new Linvala is any more shrug-worthy than the original.
K: Say hello to the only “updated” legend that has appeared to undergo any kind of journey in this block (ok, fine, Omnath appeared to “get angrier”). Kalitas has been through the wringer for sure, and looks much worse for wear. It’s a minor miracle that those excellent statement-piece shoulderpads have held together so well, all things considered. Kalitas is a slave to the Eldrazi now, representing the other way you could go as a vampire on Zendikar. I would say this card is a real hit, showing a definite relationship to his previous form, mechanically and flavorfully speaking. Even more so, I love all the effort and attention to detail that Todd Lockwood put into these mirrored portraits.
T: I like Kalitas because you don’t have to look at his type line to figure out if he’s an ally. He’s not an ally, he’s a traitor! I wonder if keeping his shoulder blades was part of the deal he made with the Eldrazi. He’s gotta be satisfied with that stylish new insectoid skull, in any case. Props to Wizards for not repeating the mistakes of original Zendikar and not doing that weird thing where all the vampires were randomly Native Americans for some reason. I’m just saying. There are no Native American planeswalkers, you know?
K: Chandra’s back, and now she’s in a shipping yard! Or maybe a living Tetris game. Either way, she’s here in this block, for no discernable reason. Even on the Chandra flavor text strewn throughout the set, she seems confused about her own place in this story. I don’t blame her, especially since her abilities have zero synergy with each other and very little connection to any previous Chandra. I guess they realized that people were tired of “Deal one damage to something.” I’m all for making “big” versions of planeswalkers, but these were some abilities that needed to go somewhere else. Like maybe onto a Tibalt update? Oh, by the way, the flaming hair continues to be impossible to make look good.
T: That hair is drawn so badly that I can’t tell if there’s a pattern on the hem of her skirt, or if her clothes are actually on fire. If technicolor dreamcubes are the new visual cue for Zendikar, I actually like that better than hedrons at this point. It’s too bad the Dreamcube never made it to production, because Super Sonic Bros looked sweet. It speaks poorly of this card that the most interesting things about it are the rocks in the background and a made-up video game.
K: At least with Nissa it doesn’t feel so weird that her abilities have very little to do with her previous incarnations, as they change her character so often it’s hard to expect any consistency. She started life as the elf planeswalker, all the way back in original Zendikar. They left the character alone for a good long time, but once they decided to bring Nissa back out, they certainly went hard. Nissa appeared in M15 and Magic Origins (as land animating planeswalker) in different versions, and now here she is doing some kind of thing with tokens and counters. This means we’ve seen 3 different Nissas in less than 3 years. If their goal is to get a character to wear out any interest or goodwill in the shortest amount of time possible, this wouldn’t be a bad way to go. Maybe I’m being too hard on Nissa, since I like the way the abilities all fit with each other thematically (feels like growth and nurturing across the board), but as with Chandra, it feels like these are abilities for a different character.
T: I like Nissa because if it weren’t for her we’d just have Garruk in every set. Did you know that there’s never been a female blue planeswalker or male red planeswalker who appeared on more than one card? What do you think Wizards is trying to say? Women can’t be logical? Men can’t be emotional? Because that’s what I hear. I like that Nissa cares about lands and Garruk cares about creatures. I feel like if I just looked at the text box I could guess with reasonable confidence that this is a Nissa card and not a Garruk card, and that’s about all the flavor we can expect from a planeswalker.
K: Cleric commander! Based on the excitement this card has generated, I can happily conclude that I’m not the only one who likes to build themed EDH decks around nearly unsupported tribes. This card is cool and the set of abilities make me really intrigued about this whole Eternal Pilgrim order. A brief review of the flavor text indicates that they’re some kind of Eldrazi worshipping death cult (FINALLY, a reason that something isn’t an ally), which is the best flavor match I’ve seen for the black-white color pair in a long time.
T: Look, I respect everyone’s religion and everything, but when someone tries to sacrifice you to appease the insensate entropy of the cosmos, they’ve crossed a line. It’s separation of church and state, not separation of my intestines from my body! Let me know if the Eldrazi ever pay dividends on all those spleens, by the way. I hear they give away free insectoid faceplates to whoever collects the most!
K: I don’t know if there’s much to say about Jori En, other than that her name sounds like something Nicholas Cage would name a kid. I like that she’s a blue-red legend with a unique ability from a fairly intriguing tribe. I guess this sort of makes me want to build a buyback deck, but there’s already no shortage of ways to durdle around. I like the card overall, and think the strength is in the art and the flavor. Almost makes me remember that Zendikar was originally a fascinating would with a cool exploration theme.
T: Jori En was a minor pawn in Jace’s boring storyline, and I assume the only reason they printed her is to incentivize people to try to build a surge deck. Between her and Kiora, they’re 0 for 2 when it comes to delivering a satisfying mermaid protagonist in BFZ. Considering Kiora and Nissa are the two planeswalkers who are actually from Zendikar, I’d think we’d have seen more of Kiora rather than Jace, Gideon, and Chandra. I have no idea who Jori En is, and we probably never will.
K: And Denn what? I appreciate little throwbacks like this to the popular cards of the inspirational block, as long as they’re not too ham-handed (looking at you, Blightsteel Colossus). Something I would’ve appreciated even more would’ve been reprinting Oracle of Mul Daya or literally any reprint from Zendikar people were hoping for. Whatever, this is your landfall-enabling general, I suppose. I feel like one place we’ve come a long way in is making sure that whatever the mechanic of your set is, you also support it in EDH by making sure there’s a leader for it. If I had to put money on any particular thing being in Shadows over Innistrad, it’d be the green-red werewolf legend. And speaking of Innistrad, that’s where we’re going next.
T: What really suffers the most from all this Eldrazi activity is the environment. Speaking of which, I really hope that the new cross-block continuity they keep talking about isn’t Eldrazi in Innistrad. While Lovecraftian horrors would make more sense there than in Generic Adventure World, I would really hate to see clunky flavorless junk like Eldrazi Scions cluttering up one of the best-executed worlds Magic has ever visited. I guess we’ll find out when we planeswalk there in a few months. Until then, gatewatch out for our next article! Peace!